Malaysia’s richness, whether it’s food, dialect or culture, derives from the intermingle of different ethnic groups, predominantly the Malay, Chinese and Indians. In Penang, where Chinese immigrants dominate, food is further enriched by the marriage of Chinese and Malaysian cultures (known s babas and nyonas), literally and metaphorically.
To get a glimpse of the awesomeness of one (Chinese) plus one (Malay) is more than two, just go through the list of noodle dishes the city has to offer:
- Kway-teow, or flat rice noodles, can be eaten as noodle soup (often with fish balls) or stir-fried (char kway teow). You can also find stir-fried kway teow in dim sum houses, using common ingredients such as beansprouts, chives, prawns, egg, soy sauce, but in the Baba-Nyonya takes the flavor to the next level with the addition of chili and belachan (shrimp paste). I am a big fan of the dish because of its texture — slightly chewy, yet soft, smooth and slurp-happy.
- Mee Mee Mee, in Penang, you have a lot of mee, or yellow noodles, dishes, but not all mee are created the same and you’ll be amazed by the variations. From Mee Goreng (stir-fried chow mien served with abundant garlic, onion, shallots and chili, as well as vegetables and meat) to Hokkien Mee/Hokkien Hae Mee (brought over from Fujian, China, the noodle soup combines prawns, slices of chicken, squid, and fish cake) to Curry Mee (curry-based noodle soup topped with coagulated blood, cuttle fish and more) to Wanton Mee (similar to Cantonese wanton, aka dumpling, noodle soup, but you can also find dry version dressed in oyster sauce and topped with barbecued pork, char siu) and more. You see, it’s hard to feel mee-out in Penang. Oh, and of course, how can I forget my friend Adrien and his family treating me to duck Loh Mee. The soup stock is made from boiling bones of a pig, pork skin, Chinese Five Spice powder and soy sauce. When done right, the gelatinous gravy tastes sweet and savory, and when done wrong, brown gunk.
But the most mind blowing bowl of Penang is the Assam Laksa.
The broth, made of poached mackerel, tamarind, lemongrass, chilis and shrimp paste, is simply explosive in flavors. Tangy, savory, spicy, you name it, it’s there. In fact, upon my first sip of the flavor intensive soup, I thought “BOOM!”
No lies. The thrill, the surprise, the never-before-experienced burst of flavors — my taste buds experienced firework-like ecstasy. And to you all saliva-swallowing foodie/travelers, Ayer Itam Pasar has the reputed “best Assam Laksa” in the world.
Like other Asian countries such as Taiwan, Thailand, street food is a way of life for most locals.